Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Munky (Swan River Press 2020) by B. Catling - Review

From Swan River Press in Dublin comes a short novel about England, or at least one set there. It is also set in that historical period older people (like me, nowadays) think of as 'between the wars'. This was the Silver Age of the ghost story, when M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and E.F. Benson were still active but the great burst of creativity that preceded the First World War had begun to fizzle out. 

The title is word play - the story concerns a ghostly monk haunting the environs of an English abbey. Pulborough Abbey is a fine old historic building (not unlike the cathedral in de la Mare's 'All Hallows'), but the nearby village is tiny and backward. The arrival of the monkish ghost triggers a chain reaction among the locals and sends out ripples as far as London, from which a celebrated investigator, Walter Prince - dubbed 'Ghost-Finder General' by the tabloids - comes.

The blurb on the flyleaf sums up the feel of the book. 

'Peopled with richly drawn Dickensian grotesques and filled with bizarre and comical incident, Munky is as compelling as it is antic. Catling transports the reader to an interwar England in the throes of change. Part bizarre ghost story, part whimsical farce, part idiosyncratic literary experiment, it could be described as P. G. Wodehouse collaborating with Raymond Roussel, with a dash of M. R. James, if it weren’t so uniquely its own thing.'

To that impressive list of influences I would add Mervyn Peake. There is something redolent of Gormenghast about the motley cast here, and perhaps also of Peake's lesser-known book Mr. Pye. It may be significant that, like Peake, Brian Catling is an artist and a poet. These talents certainly inform his use of language. Pulborough and its denizens are described in limber, economical prose. 

Unlike some nostalgic ghost stories, this one is clear-sighted about the 'good old days', particularly in its depiction of the put-upon barmaids of the awful local pub, presided over by an obese and lecherous landlord. This is not an affectionate portrait of the English, but a depiction of grotesque vanity, selfishness, and stupidity, with just a few dashes of warmth here and there amid a very wintry narrative. 

I enjoyed this book a lot. It is quirky without self-indulgence, intelligent without pretension, and humane in its compassion for the underdog and its jocular contempt for those devoid of compassion. I recommend this to anyone looking for something a little different - a clever, witty, thoughtful book that leaves lingering images of a bitter winter, and a lost soul seeking a home.

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